Juan Soto is going to dominate the baseball news cycle for the next 20 hours leading up to Tuesday’s 6 p.m. trade deadline. If the Nationals end up trading the 23-year-old superstar, he’s going to be the biggest player acquired at this year’s deadline and possibly ever.
But for at least one more night, Soto was hitting third in manager Davey Martinez’s starting lineup, playing right field and wearing “Nationals” across his chest. And if this is the last time that will be the case, he gave Nats fans one last classic Juan Soto performance.
Facing old friend Max Scherzer in his first three plate appearances, Soto went 1-for-1 with a 421-foot home run and two walks, albeit in an eventual 7-3 loss to the Mets. He finished the night 1-for-1 with the homer, three walks, two runs scored and a stolen base in front of a crowd of 29,034 who were either rooting for him to stay in D.C. or rooting for him to go to New York.
“For me, I'm playing for the Nationals right now. I haven't heard anything yet. So for me, just another game that I play,” Soto said during a lengthy postgame meeting with the media.
In their first matchup in the bottom of the first inning, Soto was able to run the count full and draw a six-pitch walk. When Josh Bell, also still in the Nats lineup tonight, doubled down the right-field line, Soto advanced to third. But Mets right fielder Starling Marte threw the ball to second base with no one there, allowing both runners to advance and giving the Nats a quick 1-0 lead on Scherzer.
“I love it. I mean, even if I don't get a hit or anything like that, I know when he was here, he was talking about how he's going to make me out and all that kind of stuff," Soto said of facing Scherzer. "We just go back and forth. Him, Trea (Turner) and me, we just go back and forth every time. Get the honor to face him again and it just feels great. You see how good he is and how special he can be.”
Matchup No. 2 came in the fourth inning with the Nats trailing 4-2. Leading off and already up 1-0 in the count, Soto uncharacteristically took a 94 mph fastball down in the zone for strike one. He didn’t miss Scherzer’s next offering, which was a 95 mph fastball right down the pipe. Soto hit it 108 mph off his bat over the wall in center field.
“Awesome. I mean, facing a guy like Max, he had great at-bats," Martinez said of Soto. "He stayed, kept the ball in the zone, popped up some good pitches, got a ball to hit. Hit it far. But the last couple of days, his at-bats have been really, really good.”
The third and final meeting between the two was the most animated of the bunch. With the Nationals now only down 4-3, Soto again was able to get to a full count and draw a walk on the seventh pitch, while mixing in a couple of shuffles in Scherzer’s direction. The Mets starter was not happy with his changeup that went way out of the strike zone. But unlike the previous two appearances, Soto didn’t come around to score, so the Mets’ lead stayed intact.
“He don't like it," Soto said of Scherzer seeing his former teammate do his signature shuffle in the batter's box. "He puts his face down or (something) like that. He don't want to look at me anytime because he's – and I understand on him – because he's doing his job and he's in 100 percent. It don't matter how good our relationship is, he's in the game 100 percent. He don't smile, he don't do anything to me. He just to try to make me out.”
“As we all know, he competes every pitch, right?" Martinez said. "I mean, that's why he does what he does to get to the next pitch. But when he faces a guy like Max, or really anybody, I mean, he wants to win the at-bat. That's just who he is. And today, he won a few. I mean, to him a walk is winning in an at-bat. And he enjoys it. He loves it. He works counts and he goes deep in counts and when he gets a ball to hit, as you saw today, he can hit it far.”
Soto also contributed in the field, making a nice throw for an out at home to limit the damage against Nats starter Patrick Corbin. Down 2-1 after giving up the Nats’ early lead and with the bases loaded and two outs, Corbin gave up a single to right to Marte to give the Mets a 3-1 lead with more coming. But Soto picked up the ball and threw a dart to Keibert Ruiz at home to get Tomás Nido out at the plate and end the inning.
“Hey, Juan's Juan, right?" Martinez said. "He comes in, he plays hard and, like I've been telling him for the last week and a half, I said, 'Hey, you just gotta control what you can control. Go out there and have fun and play baseball.' He's been doing that. So once again today his at-bats were really good. His at-bats the other day were really good. The biggest thing with him is accepting his walks. If they're gonna walk you, let him walk you. And you got a couple guys behind you that can hit the ball, too. So he's been doing that.”
“Yeah, that shows you that I'm controlling what I can control," Soto said. "Just going out there and keep playing hard for those fans out there. Because I know, like they were saying, they love me. So I'm just gonna give them love back.”
And the fans were loving him. They gave him multiple ovations throughout the night, the loudest coming after he drew his final walk and then stole second base in the bottom of the eighth. A nice gesture from the Nats faithful, even though it seemed a bit odd to Soto since it's possible this isn't goodbye.
“It's a lot," Soto said of the cheers from the crowd. "It kinda feels weird, too, since nothing happened yet and we're just still waiting. But it's kind of cool at the same time, but it's kind of weird, too.”
“It's awesome. I know the fans appreciate him," said Martinez. "What he's done and what he means to the fan base. I mean, it's awesome. But that's a testament to how good our fans are, really. I mean, our fans have supported us. It's been tough, but they're here and they support us and they love him as they should. So it was great to see that.”
So it was that the Nationals star had a great game in what could be his last appearance with the only team he’s ever known. And it was in a losing effort, thanks in part to Corbin, who did not have a great night, which has become the norm for him.
Corbin’s 22nd start of the season started off strong, and much better than his last outing (although that’s not saying much since he gave up six runs in ⅔ of an inning on Wednesday). He needed only 12 pitches to get through a perfect top of the first. But when handed a lead, the left-hander imploded with a 38-pitch second inning.
A leadoff walk to Pete Alonso came back to bite Corbin, who then gave up a two-out RBI single to Jeff McNeil. Then a blooper by Nido to center gave the Mets a 2-1 lead. The inning continued with the bases loaded after a Mets challenge overturned the third out at first base and gave Brandon Nimmo an infield single, setting up Marte’s RBI and Soto’s second outfield assist of the season.
Corbin needed 38 pitches in the second. All of the scoring came with two outs and three of the last four batters he faced in the inning got to two strikes.
“Yeah, I got a ground ball, a couple of weak hits and then left a slider up to McNeil that he hit to right," Corbin said. "But yeah, it seems like they got a couple of guys on and it's a tough lineup over there. I thought I made some decent pitches, but I just couldn't get that last out.”
He would surrender a solo home run to Alonso in the third inning before exiting with one out in the fifth having given up four runs on seven hits and a walk. He got four strikeouts, hit a batter and gave up the home run. His ERA on the season is now 6.57. To keep track: The only qualified major league pitcher to finish with a higher mark since 2000 was José Lima, who did it both in 2000 (6.65) and 2005 (6.99). Corbin is now 4-15, making it also worth noting that there hasn’t been a 20-loss major league pitcher since Mike Maroth went 9-21 for the Tigers in 2003.
“Yeah, I mean, it kind of seems like that's been happening a lot, where a ground ball that maybe is a foot or two away from our guys," said Corbin. "But just trying to make some quality pitches against these guys. It's a very good lineup over there, and it's all you can do.”
Steve Cishek, pitching to increase his own trade value, gave up a three-run home run to Francisco Lindor in the sixth after hitting the first batter he faced to put two runners on base with two outs.
The Nats are now 8-37 on the season within the National League East, and 27-31 against everyone else. They have won just three out of their last 29 games against their division rivals. Overall, they are 35-69 and face some important decisions on the franchise’s future leading up to tomorrow’s deadline.
But regardless of the score or the standings, the story of the night was Soto as he showed off his skill set that makes him one of the best players in baseball. And with 2 ⅓ seasons left of control before he hits the prime of his career, if he’s going to be traded, it’s going to be for the biggest haul this sport has ever seen.
That story’s conclusion will have to wait until tomorrow. For now, let’s just enjoy one more Nationals game filled with Juan Soto things.
“Yeah, I am. I am," Martinez said when asked if he's ready for the trade deadline talk to be over. "I mean, like I said earlier today that come 6:02 p.m. tomorrow, I'm gonna be sitting in my office and whatever happens, happens. But I'm gonna sit there … and be ready for the game and then be done with it.”
When asked what he wants to happen tomorrow, Soto evoked Ryan Zimmerman while standing at his locker. Fitting since that locker used to belong to Zimmerman and has a permanent nameplate over top with Mr. National's "I truly believe this is the greatest city to play sports for in the world" quote from the World Series parade.
“For me? I mean, I feel good where I'm at," Soto replied. "And I understand it's a business and they need to do whatever they need to do. I'm just another player, another employee here, like Zim used to say. I just got to be here and give my 100 percent. Whatever happens, I'm gonna be good with it.”